It’s happening again…IT’S HAPPENING AGAIN! As the famous football chant goes, once again, expectations are on the rise in Orange County. Any listener to Halfway Around The Halo, the LAAngelsUK podcast, would know about the range of emotions we go through every single season. The desire to remain level-headed and pragmatic about the Angels’ chances goes out the window as Opening Day approaches and the long offseason finally draws to a conclusion.
Every year is our year, every year is the one where they finally put it all together and go on a run, but every year they disappoint. But not this year. Right? This IS the year where the Angels get back to winning ways. This is the year they begin to replicate those perennially successful Angels teams of the 2000s and early 2010s. This is the year that we have all been waiting for.
I’m fully aware that articles like this are written every single spring. That within a few months, these words will be eligible for the freezing cold takes list and that, once again, egg will be splattered all over my face.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t write these articles. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. I’ve always said that if you can’t have that blind optimism about your chances in late March, then when can you? What’s the point of giving your heart and soul to a franchise if you can’t, foolishly or not, believe that this year you’re going to be rewarded for all the pain and suffering that comes with the emotional investment to a ballclub thousands of miles away?
I like to think I fall very much in the middle on the negative/positive spectrum – always on the lookout for positives while maintaining that level of realism that is required to keep your feet on the ground. But the last week has returned me to my point of peak optimism, pushing aside all the doubts and experience of years gone by to tell you why, in this season preview, this year is going to be different.
Let’s start with the World Baseball Classic. We had MLB’s dream ending. The two biggest stars of the competition, the two biggest stars in baseball facing off to end the game. Of course, the Japanese won it, but it was not lost on anybody watching that both of those players play for the same team. Both those players have been starved of success. And both those players look like they were born to be playing on the biggest stage. Because, quite frankly, they should be. In Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani, the Angels have two of the sport’s greatest-ever players. When all is said and done, they are going to go down as top-tier icons of the game. That is not a bad platform for any franchise to have when building a roster. So why has it all gone wrong? And why is this year going to be different?
I think firstly, the Angels deserve so much credit for letting their stars go and take part in this competition. To support them in striving for success. Allowing Shohei to pitch in the final on short rest is a great look for the franchise and to the benefit of the sport. But it does more than just ingratiate itself to current and future players. It has allowed them to compete in these environments and atmospheres. To experience the fervour that playing for their country elicits in players and the feeling of playing games with massive stakes on the line. For me, this is only going to be a positive as we return to playing major league baseball. The experiences these guys, not just Ohtani and Trout, but Patrick Sandoval, Luis Rengifo, David Fletcher, Jose Quijada, and Gio Urshela, to name just some, were a part of is only going to increase their desire to bring that back to Anaheim.
On top of that, this roster construction feels different. There was a telling article with Arte Moreno, the Angels owner, recently. He references a conversation between him and the GM Perry Minasian about whether he should go out and just sign Trea Turner. To blow the budget on adding one more star to the roster. This is an approach we’ve seen time and time again for the Angels with very limited success outside of Vlad Guerrero. Instead, Perry convinced him to spread the money around. To go out and use the money on building a roster full of depth and above-average talent. And to me, that is what they have now done.
Of course, I can’t mention Moreno’s name without briefly touching on the aborted sale of the franchise this offseason. There was palpable excitement amongst the fanbase when news broke that Arte was looking to sell the club. Fans were fed up with losing, fed up with the above stars and scrubs approach to roster construction, and from the outside, what looked like ownership meddling, which had led to this barren run of losing. Arte has since U-turned on this decision, stating he couldn’t face selling the team, and whatever your view of that, success now has to come on the field. Proof will well and truly be in the pudding if he can deliver on his promise of wanting to win.
Now, returning to roster construction. The reason why I think this is the year where the Angels finally win the amount of games people believe they should is that there are no glaring holes in the lineup. There is talent up and down the roster. And there is potential cover for when injuries inevitably strike. Without making too many excuses, this is a franchise that has been hit hard by the injury bug over the past few years. When big-money stars like Trout and Anthony Rendon miss large chunks of the season, you are inevitably going to struggle. Especially when the players you’re plugging in all year to fill the gaps left by them are Quad-A players at best.
This year that is different though. If Rendon does go down again, Gio Urshela slides straight into third. Should one of Luis Rengifo or Brandon Drury go down, then David Fletcher slots straight back into the lineup. The Angels didn’t make a big free agency splash this year, but they spread the money around and brought in proven MLB talent, coming off the back of some big years.
The outfield this year looks to be one of the best in all of baseball. Alongside Mike Trout the Angels acquired his look-a-like Hunter Renfroe who brings an abundance of power to the middle of the order. On the other side of Mike is Taylor Ward after his breakout season last year. For me, nothing about that breakout was a fluke or cannot be replicated. He is a legitimate plus hitter that will sit atop the Angels lineup and set the table for Mike and Shohei. Beneath them, we will have Mickey Moniak and Jo Adell in Triple-A, with Moniak, the former first overall pick for the Phillies, coming off the back of a sensational spring and ready to step in if injury hits.
In the infield, Jared Walsh, just two years removed from being an All-Star, will likely hit seventh in this lineup at first base, with a combination of Drury/Rengifo/Fletcher and Urshela manning the middle infield and Rendon back at third base. There is a nice combination of power, gap power and OBP in that group. Of course, as I’ve said previously, the real X-Factor could be Anthony Rendon. We just need him to be healthy. He changes the dynamic of this whole team if he is healthy and in the lineup because there are not many better one-to-fives than Ward, Trout, Ohtani, Rendon, and Renfroe. He has stepped into a leadership role, highlighted by his actions in the fight with the Mariners last year with Rendon on the bench and first into the action despite having been injured for months, and that is going to be so important this year.
At catcher, we have a battle going on too. Logan O’Hoppe got a cup of coffee last year, but the Angels’ top prospect, acquired in the Brandon Marsh trade with the Phillies last year, is looking likely to start the year alongside Max Stassi. He brings even more power and hitting ability to a lineup that looks deep already, and I’m very excited to see how he develops. This is not to mention Matt Thaiss, out-of-options but an above-average hitting catcher too, if they can find a place for him on the roster.
And then that brings me to the rotation. The Angels rotation was top 10 in the majors last year, and it figures to be even better this year. There are still lazy perceptions of the Angels needing pitching, but that wasn’t the case last year; it was the hitting that let them down. And this year, this rotation is going to be elite.
I don’t need to mention the impact Shohei Ohtani has. He is a true ace. In his contract year, this is going to be a CY Young calibre season. Then we have Patrick Sandoval, a guy under the radar in national circles who put himself well and truly in the spotlight with some stunning pitching performances for Mexico in the WBC. Next up is Reid Detmers, already with a no-hitter to his name, but someone who projects to get better and better and has the potential to be a real frontline starter. Fourthly, the Angels’ biggest free agent acquisition, bringing over Tyler Anderson on a three-year deal from the Dodgers after his career year. Some regression is expected, but slotting him into third or fourth in the rotation is a real boost to an already solid group. At the back end, starters like Suarez/Davidson/Canning/Barria are battling it out, but the aim is to go with the five-man rotation as much as possible and just slot in the sixth guy when necessary.
Finally, the bullpen, which is the biggest area of concern. Even when the Angels were good last year for the first six weeks or so, the bullpen was still blowing games. They have since traded closer Raisel Iglesias, and there is no standout option to replace him. Carlos Estevez was brought in with a view to taking that role but has had a difficult spring, and last year’s option, Jimmy Herget, isn’t a natural fit. Guys like Ryan Tepera and Aaron Loup need to have strong bounce-back years, although they aren’t too far removed from excellent seasons, and then Quijada needs to ensure he has that intensity to ensure his fastball is working to get punchouts. The wildcard in all this is Ben Joyce, drafted last year by the Angels but having had a very impressive spring throwing gas. He looks like he could bring that 105MPH fastball to the big leagues very soon. If that is the case, the Angels might have a homegrown closer sooner rather than later.
When all is said and done, this is a roster than looks like it can compete for a playoff spot. I don’t believe it’s good enough to challenge for the division. The Astros are in a class of their own in the American League. But there is absolutely no reason why we can’t take on the Mariners and Rangers for second in the West and that wildcard spot. I think this is a team that just needs to make it in, and then anything can happen. Ask the Phillies. The rotation is very much geared up for playoff baseball. The lineup is as deep as I can remember. And there is a togetherness about this group under Phil Nevin that makes me believe they are going to surprise people this year. I, for one, cannot wait for next Thursday and to see this time in action.
If you’re reading this you nerds on the prediction pod…don’t be put off by years past, listen to Darius and predict us 90 wins.
Featured image of Angel Stadium by Nick Wright
Nick Wright is the Los Angeles Angels correspondent for Bat Flips & Nerds. Follow him on Twitter @LAAngelsUK